Composer Profile: Gernot Wolfgang
by Mark Carlson
It has been a long and interesting musical journey for Gernot Wolfgang, who, as a high school student in his native Austria, was a fan primarily of Top 40. From there, he found his way to jazz—first as a guitarist and then increasingly as a composer—then to film music, and eventually to his current passion: writing music for classical music concerts.
You might know Gernot as one of the most prolific and most-performed composers in the LA concert music scene, what with a commission from LACO a few years ago, commissions from numerous chamber ensembles, and repeat performances all over the place.
In Innsbruck, where he grew up, he told me, “We had very good English and geography classes—my two favorite subjects. I wasn’t serious about music until I was about 19 or 20, when I started to listen to guitarists Wes Montgomery and Jim Hall, and pianist Oscar Peterson. I slowly got hooked.” Determined to become a jazz guitarist, he was eventually accepted at the University of Music in Graz, which has the oldest jazz program in Europe, and there he studied with one of his guitar heroes, Harry Pepl. “I learned a ton from him—from hearing him talk, and from watching and hearing him play.”
His journey then took him to study jazz at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, thanks to a Fulbright, but he wanted to do something completely new to him, as well, so he also studied in their film scoring program. He got hooked on the prospect of writing music for films.
After his return to Austria, he toured as a jazz guitarist and taught at the University in Graz, and he met his future wife, bassoonist Judith Farmer, who was then principal bassoonist of the Radio Symphony Orchestra of Vienna. But he kept thinking, “If I am going to do this film scoring thing, I need to be in Los Angeles,” and after an exploratory trip to the US in 1993, which brought them to LA, Gernot decided to stay. He entered the film scoring program at USC, while Judy returned to her job in Vienna. She rejoined him in LA when they married in 1996.
About his early days in Los Angeles, he told me, “I was determined to be a full-time film composer and so started doing all the things that would lead to that: I worked as an assistant to composer Chris Young, I was part of a team for an animated series, I took starter jobs… At the same time, I was listening to Jerry Goldsmith, and that got me turned on to Bartók, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, the impressionists—the composers I felt my film composer idols were influenced by.”
His interest in concert music was growing all the time, too. “I had written some chamber music with Judy in mind, and at first, I thought, ‘when I am not busy with film music, I’m going to pursue concert music.’ At some point, I started taking it more seriously, and around 2000 realized that this could be a serious part of my musical professional career. Now I am spending at least half of my time on concert music, and the rest working as an orchestrator for films and video games.”
“Everything I did left an impression and is still with me. I still have a strong love of very good pop music, for jazz, for film music, and Jerry Goldsmith is still my big hero. Depending on the piece I am writing, solo parts for instrumentalists might sound as if they could have been improvised. My harmonies still have some relationship to jazz but are more chromatic. From film music comes my tendency to have programs, or at least some nonmusical idea that gets me started, that becomes an overarching idea. It’s fascinating to me that I have been finding a happy medium between the harmonic world of the 2nd Viennese school—though not 12-tone—and the rhythmic drive of jazz.”
Being married to one of the best bassoonists around—and having been a performer himself—has had an influence on his composing. “It’s really important to me to write each individual part so that I would have a good time playing it if I were playing that instrument. That doesn’t mean that the stuff is easy but that difficulties are within reason. If something is unreasonable, I’ll change it. I want to honor the performers.”
About his new string quartet, String Theory, he told me that he prepared for writing it by studying and listening to the first five string quartets of Bartók. “I always do that—spend 2-3 days just listening to music for the instruments I am about to write for.”
In fact, the first movement is called Béla. The second is an all-pizzicato movement called Cartwheels. The third is a slow movement, Northern Lights, written with violist Roland Kato—who took a recent trip to Scandinavia—in mind, and it has extensive viola solos in it. The final movement is called Nashville, named after the TV series to which Gernot admits an addiction. “The songs they feature are really good, and the singing is great. I was trying to include a good dose of what goes on in that series and to integrate it into what I had already done stylistically in the previous movements.”
This is his first string quartet but his second piece for Pacific Serenades. He told me that he had a lot of fun writing it, and based on our joyful experience with his Impressions, commissioned by Ursula Krummel and premiered by us in 2002, I have no doubt that String Theory will also be a joy to hear.